Follow our progress running the nursery, watching wild bees, keeping honey bees and creating our own bee-haven in south Oxfordshire

The dreaded varroa mite

gruesome close up of varroa on the trap

gruesome close up of varroa on the trap

At rosybee we have never really had a big problem with varroa but we still diligently do a couple of treatments each year just to ensure they keep at a tolerable level, However, towards the end of last season I noticed that a couple of the hives had a large pile of dead bees outside the door which is often a sign of deformed wing virus.  We did an autumn treatment with apivar but didn't failed to put the sheets under the open mesh floor so that we could note how many mites dropped.

Then this week we did a oxalic acid treatment and, because its still cold, the floors were in place so we could see the drop. Oh my!!  After two days I estimate we had about 500 on each floor which is way above any safe limit so I am really glad we took action.  I am now wondering if the apivar treatment didn't fully work for some reason as this is such a high number for this time of year.

The picture shows the volume we found and the mites in all their disgusting glory. I noticed there were a few baby mites in the mix which you normally would not see because they would be tucked up with the bee larvae but in winter they have to make do with adult bee carriers and so are equally impacted by the treatment.

the scale of the problem

the scale of the problem

Hopefully this has got a lot of them but we will have to keep an eye on the numbers and use further treatments if necessary. It just shows you have to be really vigilant.

Installing beehives at Denman College (WI HQ)


Yesterday we moved our first beehive to Denman College where we are 'beekeepers in residence'. We had been waiting to make sure the bees had survived the winter. On inspecting the chosen hive we found them to be very active but all up the top eating the fondant and small amount of pollen we had given them. The brood box was very light when we lifted it so they must have completely exhausted all their other stores. Thank goodness we have kept feeding them!

When we got to Denman, we were struck by how sheltered the apiary site is compared to Rosybee which is amongst a flat arable expanse. Its a lovely apiary site, nestled under tree old apple trees at the far north of the gardens. The bees have the full 20 acre garden to themselves and we are not aware of any competing hives anywhere close to their introduction should be benefitial to the local environment too.

Here we are just installing the hive. It will be very interesting to keep bees on two sites and compare the difference in the bees behaviour.

Collecting bee swarms can be tricky

We have kept bees for three years but this is the first year that we have collected swarms. We did not advertise the fact or go out of our way to find them but there were so many swarms in our area (including a few of our own) that we just kept finding them or being told about them.  We have now collected 7 in total; a couple have been kept as new colonies, one offered back to a clear 'owner' and the rest merged in with our existing stock with mixed results. The trickiness comes in two elements: 1. Capturing them from wherever they have chosen to land and 2. Then deciding what to do with them.

The picture above shows me attempting to collect the last and most tricky challenge, in the fork of an ivy-bound tree, above a stream and balancing on a plank of wood. Not ideal!  And the queen was so wedged into the V of the tree trunk that it took 4 attempts over 12 hours to scoop her out and get her into a nuc. Each previous time the swarm regrouped back in the tree within a hour of being scooped out. Its a miracle that they survived. The queen went on to prove to be a good and calm layer and we have just attempted to use her to replace a very aggressive queen.  I hope she has survived that too. Next instalment coming soon.....

Bees moving into Rosybee site

Until today our bees have been in their original site near our house. But yesterday, when we checked them, we found queen cells  so we swung into action and today we attempted to take an artificial swarm.  We are completely useless at finding the queen so our method is to move the primed queen cell and a few other frames of brood into the new hive. The frames we took where loaded with bees, which is great for the new colony, but we have to hope that the old queen was not amongst them - it was very hard to check.  Then we wrapped packing tape round the new hive and drove it a mile down to Rosybee.  We read a trick for persuading the foraging bees not to fly home to their old hive. Apparently you put a tree branch in front of the hive to make the look around when they fly out and say to themselves "Eh up, that wasn't there before. Oh, I see, we're in a different field. I'd better remember that and come back here".  Or that is the theory at least.

We have given them sugar syrup to encourage them to draw up the wax on the new frames and now we have to wait and see if a queen emerges and mates. I dont like this stage, when the hive is queen-less but hopefully in about 2 weeks time we will know.

Update 2 days later: yesterday we took a second artificial swarm and repeated the process. It is already apparent that the first hive has retained a lot of 'flying' bees so it looks like the simple process of putting a branch across the front entrance has worked.  Great!! and bang goes the myth that you cannot move bee less than 3 miles.

The new apiary at Rosybee

Over the last couple of weeks we (mainly my husband Paul) have been getting our new apiary ready. Our bees currently reside in a field near our house owned by a local farmer but now that we have our own site and will be filling with masses of bee-food (flowers) we want to migrate them. Its fantastic to be able to put the hives wherever we want and create the ideal conditions:

  • South-east facing so the hives get the morning sun and encourage the bees out when the flowers have maximum nectar
  • Sheltered by mature trees to the north and west to give shelter
  • On the edge of our new orchard corner to provide some light shade when the (heritage) apple trees grow
  • A nice level area for us to work in and manage
We have laid down some membrane, with paving stones to provide a solid footing for each hive and wood chips on top to keep the grass down. This should produce a practical and low maintenance area.

We will have up to 6 hives - we dont really want more than that as we dont have time with all the other aspects of the business to run - and will initially stock some new hives with artificial swarms. Then at some stage we will be brave and move the original colonies.

With the new hives we have chosen to go for commercial brood boxes as this should reduce future swarming tendencies. They are cedar too; lovely and clean and posh bought from Paynes Bee Farm

Checking the bees in February

Last Friday the temperature touched 10 degrees so I took the chance to check on the bees.  I hate beekeeping in Winter as I always worry that they are starving or being attched by something or dying of disease or, or anything....just because I cant see them and be reassured they are fine. I had noticed recently that one of the hives was lighter than the others and buzzing. In my mind I couldnt decide what that meant: was one hive cold and running out of food while the others were fine or did that mean that the noisy one was ok and the silent ones were dead!

Anyway, I went armed with fondant to top up thier food supplies but what I found was three happy hives with varying amounts of food but all with plenty. In the end I decided it was better not to give them extra food and to let them use up the hard old stores in the super so that they will have plenty of space to fill with fresh honey.

If they all make it through to spring we will have increase our hive numbers from 2 to 3.

Checking the bees mid-winter

Over the Christmas period it was so mild that the temperature rose above 10 degrees on several days so we decided we would take a peek and see how the ladies were doing.  So we made our plans and just waited till the wind dropped. The plan was to check food supplies and also administer the dreaded oxalix acid- as per BBKA news advice - before they start laying and the larvae might be damaged. We ended the season with three hives but one was a merge of two that were in trouble and we knew they hadnt put away as much sugar syrup as the other two. Sure enough the hive was lighter and as soon as we lifted off the roof we could see lots of them coming out of the crown board. Apparently this is the classic sign of hungry winter bees; they leave the wamrth of the bee-ball in the brood box and search the entire hive for food.  Actually they did still have some fondant but we have them another couple of blocks placed in the eke directly above the brood box.

The other two hives were behaving as you would wish; all quiet when you open the lid and hunkered down in the brood box.  Hopefully all  three colonies will make it through winter ok.


Dealing with wasp attacks

During late summer wasps can attack beehives in large numbers causing distress and sometime killing the hive.  We found that this year was particularly bad and found 3  whole nests within a half mile of hives. The problem is apparently caused by the drone wasps which, after mating earlier in the season, really dont have much to do for the rest of summer.  So they roam, like teanage boys do, around looking for trouble and food.  Thier numbers peak around August time before they begin to die off as winter approaches.

Unlike bees that mainly focus on nectar from plants (and honey if they can find it) they will be attracted by anything sweet. This is why you see them in large numbers on rotting windfall fruit. Unfortunately they can smell honey inside the hive so its very common for them to try and get in the front door or any other crack in the hive.

To protect your hive you need to:

  • put the hive doors in place to restrict the area that the bees need to defend
  • make sure that the supers are stacked neatly to ensure there no other ways in
  • avoid feeding with sugar syrup until the worst of the wasps has passed
  • set up traps - see picture - and check them several times per week when the wasps are bad

We find that the simplest trap is a wide neck bottle with a dilute solution of cheap stawberry jam and washing up water; smell of the jam attracts them in and small amount of detergent breaks the surface tension to speed up drowning and make it harder to climb out. This jar probably has 200 wasps in it which were collected in about 3 days this August.  We put one trap out behind each hive and hope that they will distract attention from the front of the hives. Judging by the numbers trapped, they are doing something.



107 queen cells in one hive!

Last week I wrote my June hive update stating that all was now calm following the swarming madness of April.  Well, that was clearly tempting fate and only a week later it has all changed again. The good news is that all three of our hives are now laying down honey again.

The bad news is that in one hive, where last week we squashed a few queen cells, this week we found one capped on (we must have missed one) and 107 new queen cells.  Most were just empty cups but quite a few had larvae in.

More worryingly, we couldn't find any eggs - but we did see some very small, 3-day larvae so we are just hoping the queen hasn't vamoosed.

Anyway, even though its now July, we decided to split the hive and force an artificial swarm. There were so many bees that we think the colony can stand it and still settle before winter.

We have both parts of the split colony sugar syrup to help them draw up more wax we will check them again at the weekend so we can see if we have one, two or any queens.


June update from the hives

  After a frantic May with endless worries about losing the queens in swarms, queen cells hatching, more swarms and endless waiting for signs of laying......June has be quite peaceful.

We ended up with one extra hive from artificial swarming, taking our meager total to three.  Two of the three hives had a long period without a queen so it has taken all month for the masses of new brood to hatch and get to the stage of maturity where they can fly and begin produce honey. All that time the baby bees have been eating the winter stores and cleaning up the empty frames we extracted honey from.

The brood production in each hive looks very healthy; in one hive we have 10 frames of brood and so far, no queen cells but they are storing pollen in with the honey so we may need to give them more space.

In the other two, the have space but are both producing queen cells each week. In one, I think they are behind schedule for drawing up wax to provide space to lay - althought they have 5 frames of foundations sitting there - so we are giving them sugar syrup to help with wax production.  The other is just a really large colony which might be trying to split.   It is probably a bit late in the season for an artificial swarm but we can probably be lead by their judgment; so far this year they have been smarter than us!


How the bees play when the queen is away

When our bees were without queens earlier this year (when we carelessly let them swarm) we noticed some interesting behaviors in the hives: 1, aggression: they were not happy at all. Even the most passive of colonies was dive bombing anyone who came within 100 feet of the hives. Almost everyone using the field got stung.  They were particularly aggressive in the evening

2, disorganised behavior in the hive; they undertook the basic jobs that keep the colony alive in the short term, such as raising the brood, but we commonly found them eating the recently laid-down honey stores rather than being out collecting more.

3, weird wax formations;  we also found that the way they raised up wax became uneven and they mixed drone brood cells in with honey stores.  This picture shows how we are now left with some very strong raised wax that they do not want to use for honey stores:

The hives have re-queened (at last)

We have had a traumatic 5 weeks ever since our hives started to produce masses of queen cells in mid April.   We tried to do artificial swarms but got the timings wrong resulting in multiple hive swarming and getting lost.  Then we waited for the new queen cells to hatch. They did but no sign of queens or laying so we waited.....and waited.... Eventually one hive was found with a laying queen and we were able to take eggs and put them into the other two remaining hives to encourage emergency queens. Last week when we checked, they were raising emergency queens nicely.  But yesterday, to my great surprise, we found that those emergency queen cells were still only at 'cup' stage........but the hives had newly laid eggs.  So the queens must have been there after all but took a very long time - 4 weeks - to start laying.

So, finally each of our hives has an active queen and hopefully they can begin to recover their numbers and get back to full health.  I cannot tell you what a relief this is.

We took honey off them last weekend and have given them back the empty messy frames.  I hope this gives them a nice honey boost as the clean them up.

Bee plants - the trial plot in May

What a change! To look at the bee-plot now you would never know it had only be planted last September.  I did pack the plants in closer than I would normally recommend but it is now almost completely filled out. The succession of flowering is also going well with the Oriental Poppies and the Geranium Pratense picking up from the Doronicum and Erysimum.

The self-seeding section also appears to be working with the Borage beginning to power up through the Mysotis as it is ending its month of flowering.

This May has been a good few weeks ahead of normal so I am anticipating the 'June Gap' might be early too.  In the general area, the rape is over as are the Hawthorn and most of the flowering trees.

The Elder is approaching full bloom right now but after that comes the tricky time for bee nutrition and so I am hoping the bee-plot will pass the test supplying pollen and nectar in the gap.

Look out for Junes update for find out if it does!

May - update from the hives

Its been a really eventful month in which the highlights have been

  • production of many queen cells
  • attempting to artificial swarm but messing up the timings
  • swarming and loss of both original queens
  • painful waiting for the hives to hatch queen cells and requeen
  • queen cells hatching but after two weeks still no signs of laying in 3 out of four hives.

So, a month on from the first sight of queen cells, we finally have one new and very productive queen. On the other hives it looks fairly desperate;  all the brood has hatched, the bee numbers  are beginning to drop and the drones are pillaging the honey stores.

In an attempt to salvage something we have merged two of  the others back together and added a frame of eggs to see if there is a maiden queen or if they start to develop queen cells.  I am not sure they have time to grow a new queen from scratch we so we will also consider buying one once we see what they do.

This is definitely not as easy as it sounds in the books!

Being 'between queens'

So, to recap: we had carelessly let our queen cells get too mature and our old queens swarmed off.  Luckily we still had robust numbers of bees left and queen cells in each of our (now) 4 hives. On our last check we found that queen cells had hatched in 3 out of the 4 hives but even after a further 4 days couldnt see either queens or any signs of laying.

We assume that we are waiting for the queens to perform their maiden flights. From what we have read, it can take a few days for the queens to get round to this but its not very clear how long.  One source said 1 to 5 days; another said 10 days and yet another said up to 5 weeks!   As its already been 3 weeks since any new eggs were laid. By my reckoning the colony will die out in another 3 three so anything longer than 10 days for a maiden flight sounds risky to me.

Id love to see the maiden flight but, unfortunately, I currently work some 60 miles away and  I don't think sitting in the field with my laptop, blackberry and mobile is going to happen.

To add to the fun, the last hive to hatch its queens appears to have swarmed again. We had left two queen cells (cant quite bring myself to risk only one) and we thought that risk of swarming was very low because the colony size was reduced from its previous swarm.  Well, we were unlucky as our neighbour saw them go past and we have definitely lost more bee stock.

Ah well,  we are learning the hard way.   I hope we see eggs in at least some of the hives this weekend so we know we havnt lost them all.


April - update from the bee hives

A week ago (first week in April) we did a full check through the hives.  It had been three weeks since our previous check and the change was dramatic.  Previously they had been active and healthy, bringing in lots of pollen, beginning to lay in multiple frames but still had some winter stores left in their one super.  We had added an extra super just in case. By last week the 2nd supers of both hives had drawn up comb and about half full of honey.  Not bad in 3 weeks!  But also both hives had several queen cells which which we thing are due running out of space in the brood box and thinking of swarming; the brood boxes (standard National) are well over half full of brood in various stages.  The queen cells were still uncapped but we could see larva in some.

One other point of interest is that we had followed the FERA advice for varroa control and added a super frame into each brood box to encourage them to make free-comb for drone brood.  To our surprise this worked perfectly in both hives although one had capped drone brood and the in the other some of the cells were already vacated.  The plan with this system is that you cut off and discard the drone brood and with it a disproportionate share of the varroa brood.  We did as instructed but found the drone brood to be entirely free of varroa. This seems a bit wasteful of the bees energy but they dont need that many drones anyway and it is quite an easy system so we shall continue.

As this is only our second year as beekeepers we needed to ponder on what to do with the queen cells. During the week we took advise on how to increase your colonies without needing to find the queen and managed to work out a plan.  Yesterday we went back into the first hive and, as you might expect, most of the queen cells were now capped. We selected a nice looking 'dimpled' one, brushed all the bees off (see top pic) and transferred that and a couple more frames into a new brood box.  We then squished all the other queen cells left in the old brood box.

The new brood box then went back on the same hive stack above an additional queen excluder to allow the bees to sort themselves out inside and some nursery bees to rise up the stack to tend the transferred brood.

Well it work fine with the exception of one unforeseen incident; our queen cell was at the base of the frame so we had not realised that when we placed the new brood box on top of the stack that cell was sticking out of the bottom fo the box with nowhere to go. We noticed immediately as the frame rose up at the top. The result was a slightly flattened tip to our queen cell and we have no way of knowing yet if that will prove fatal.  We resolved this issue by adding in an eke to provide the vital extra space. The stacked looked massive when we had finished. (see pic)

Today we had a brood box of bees which we moved to its new site.  Fingers crossed we didnt do damage and that by next week we will have a new colony.




Trying to find the Queen bee

It is just us or is finding the queen almost impossible? We started our beekeeping last June with two “nucs”.  One lot came with an unmarked queen and the other with a small mark which then must have been rubbed off in winter.  We have occasionally glimpsed a queen - resulting in conversations that go something like this:

R: "was that her? I don’t know, she's disappeared round the back now." P: "Hold it still will you? R: "Turn it to the light. She was somewhere over there" P: "I can’t see anything. Are you sure you saw her?" R: "No, but I thought I did."

We know both queens are there because they are laying fine and with each check we find fresh eggs. But all the same, without spotting them we feel like really bad beekeepers unable to achieve this mark of competence.

This year we want to try and increase our hives by using artificial swarming. All the methods talk about moving the frame with the queen on into a new brood box. Well, that means we have to find her.  At the weekend we spent about 20 minutes carefully checking through every frame and failed to see any sign of them.  But we did find queen cells so we will need to decide on our strategy and quick.

I did see a artificial swarming method in a publication recently where you didn’t need to find the queen, but having turned the house upside-down last night hunting, I can’t find it. Typical!  From memory you remove the frames with capped queen cells into an extra box that you place above an additional queen excluder on top of the stack you took them from. Then allow the worker bees to sort themselves out before moving the brood box to a new site.

If any of you have any advice for artificial swarming without knowing where your queen is that would be most welcome.

Tulips a blaze of colour with dark brown pollen

This year several plants seem to be flowering slightly ahead of schedule. In my garden (South Oxfordshire) we have had dry and hot weather for the last two weeks.

Suddenly all the tulips have come into flower at one time where normally a few open each day over a few weeks.

Right now the bees have a lot of choice as the hedgerows are still flowering, the fruit trees have started and the rape fields are just beginning to turn yellow. But still, quite a few of our bees had found this colourful display.

The pollen is mostly dark brown - almost black - and the bees were carrying such heavy loads that it was making their back legs dangle down with the weight.I was surprised they could even fly but they managed although I saw some who looked a bit wobbly. In this picture you can just see the black bulges on her legs hung low under her body.

A 'queen cup' in March!

This weekend it was 13 degrees and sunny so we took the opportunity to open the hives and have the first full check of the season. Here is what we found:Hive 1 - both the remaining super and the brood boxes were really full of bees. Since we checked thier food stores last month they have eaten about half of the remaining set honey. This is good news as we want them to empty these frames to make room for the fresh new honey. I caught a glimpse of the queen but I was too slow to catch and mark her. There are about 4 frames of brood in all stages of development. Happy hive.

Hive 2 - a lot fewer bees here. During the winter we had worried about this one but they seem to have made it. They had a full super of honey left; the lesser number of bees havnt consumed as much as the other hive. The exciting thing in this hive was the brood box; some capped brood and lavae but about 4 frames just of nice tidy laid eggs.

But also, a queen cup, tucked in the middle of one frames face with no other signs of laying around it; wierd. The current queen is obviously healthy and they are not short of space so we have no idea why they have created this. Its empty at present so we decided to just leave it and monitor regularly. It might be that we have the type of colony that just naturally and calmly replaces the queen each year. If so, great, as it will save re-queening.

We will let you know what happens.

Bees collecting pollen to feed the brood

We haven't dared open the hive up to check them, but judging by the amount of pollen they are collecting, this lot must be building up a lot of brood. Today we observed 3 slightly different shades of yellow pollen and one very pale buff/cream. The main quantity is a day-glow bright yellow which I think must be from willow cat-kins where we have heard them buzzing.

Anyway - check out the video and seen them whizzing in and out of the hive.